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Championship Midfield Brings Crew Next Challenge

The Crew's midfield has controlled every game this year, but they face a stern test in the defending MLS Cup Champions.

Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew not only sit atop the Eastern Conference standings, but also currently hold the title for the best possession team in Major League Soccer. The Crew have retained the ball 57.4% of the time so far this season, just ahead of Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls.

Last week against the Red Bulls, Columbus kept the ball for 54.8% of the 1-1 draw at home. This week, the Black and Gold face Kansas City who have kept the ball 57.1% of 2014.

Like the Crew, Sporting uses a talented midfield to hold possession and find themselves just one point behind Columbus in the standings heading into the match.

"[They have] very good players in the middle," Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter said after practice on Wednesday. "They have national team quality players obviously and it's going to be a tough game."

Similar to Columbus, Sporting has a specific style they want to play and look to dictate the game to the opponent. They attempt to keep the ball in the midfield and get their outside backs forward, but that's where the comparisons end according to Berhalter.

"They have a certain way to play, a specific way to play," Berhalter said of Kansas City. "I wouldn't exactly say it's like ours, but it is very offensive orientated, it's very physical, I think it's a little bit more direct."

The approach may be different, but the idea is similar: use the talent in the middle of the park to keep possession. SKC want to pull apart the opposition and certainly have the players to do just that.

"It's a good group," Berhalter said of the opposition's midfield.

"When you talk about some national team players in [Graham Zusi]... and [Benny Feilhaber], then you add the quality of [Oriol Rosell] in there, it's a difficult group to play against. I think they're good. [Paulo Nagamura], I can go on and on. They have a deep team and they have a strong team so I think it's a good mix between physicalness and skill."

It will be another challenge for a Crew midfield that has been better than expected this season. The tandem of Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani in the center of midfield, with Hector Jimenez and Bernardo Anor on the outside, has controlled games so far this year for the Black and Gold. The midfield will look to do this again on Sunday.

"We've faced good midfields already," Tchani said when asked about facing Sporting.

"I feel like we just have to keep playing our game. Not change whatsoever even away games; we need to keep the same system."

This mentality has been successful in 2014 for Columbus and caused the group to grow in confidence.

"I think we have technical players on our team and when we have the ball we get more confident and more confident," Trapp said.

"Playing alongside a player like Tony, and [Justin Meram], and Bernardo, and Hector, [Federico Higuain] as well, it's awesome because you know that guy is going to want the ball and going to want to pass you the ball as well. It sends the good vibes through the team."

Of course, the defending MLS Cup Champions will be confident as well and Trapp knows it won't be easy going up against their midfield.

"They're very dynamic," he said. "They like to make late runs out of that midfield, good possession oriented, clean players.

"It's starting to hit the middle of the season a little bit so I think we just have to start playing our game. We don't want to focus too much on them, but with saying that, we've got to just study up and kind of know their tendencies."

In a relatively young midfield, a challenge like this can be tough. The Crew head coach believes his group will relish the chance to match up with one of the league's best and show what they can do.

"These are young players and they want to be top players," Berhalter said. "And to be top players, you have to be able to compete against top players. For them it's another challenge and I think it's a good one."

The Columbus midfield has passed every challenge this year and doing so again could mean the best result of the young season.